The war in Afghanistan is not only a difficult military mission, it’s also a hard war to report on as well. And for the same reason: you have a modern army trying to subdue guerrilla fighters in a desolate land for no clear political purpose. The deployment of heavily equipped troops provides continual demonstration of enormous organizational and technological power, but with no identifiable enemies, territorial objectives, or sound strategic rationale the sense of things seems to drain away into the vast, almost lunar terrain. In these conditions, some photographers have managed to tap into mythic visions.
This photograph of troops on patrol was captioned to report that they are soldiers of the Royal Gurkha Rifles and Afghan National Police on patrol in Helmand province. That information tells you very little, however, and not enough to understand either the image or the war. Instead of reporting anything of note, the image evokes the mythic theme that war is eternal, and like other forms of eternity, a place where something elemental about moral life is revealed.
The patrol is moving out, two by two, across featureless terrain into some unseen, unknown future. One figure is stopped for a moment, and the profile allows us to see the burden he carries. Although he is equipped with a radio, he seems caught in silence, as are the others, their thoughts to themselves while everything else is reduced to being silhouettes. We don’t know where they are going, but in the myth it doesn’t matter. The long grey line continues forever, and they are simply carrying the load for their brief time. They walk through history into the unknown, as good soldiers always do and always will, ennobled by their simple devotion to duty.
Like I said, it’s a myth. I won’t deny it entirely, but I will note that it can expand into full sentimentality because there is so little in its way, and because mythic significance becomes especially appealing when no other, more pragmatic rationale is available. Whatever the photographer’s intention, something deep has been evoked by this image. What could be a parable of military activity without purpose evokes instead a sense that war is, if not an end in itself, something close to that.
Myths are used to make sense of large forces that exceed understanding. Mythic allusions may be particularly available in images of Afghanistan because there is a deep need to make sense of something that is becoming increasingly senseless. It has dawned on me that I now have several posts that identify various mythic projections infiltrating the optical unconscious: how the war is a form of extreme sport, or Afghanistan a new frontier. In each case, media culture digs into its storehouse to put up images that imply some otherworldly yet familiar narrative.
Maybe it’s just me, but I think the image above does double duty in this regard, as it also could be a scene from a sci-fi movie where the heroes head out from their craft to explore a dry, unforgiving planet. And so you can imagine my reaction when I saw this photograph:
This photo of the night sky over Camp Hansen in Helmand province is a stunning image of the firmament, so much so that I can feel the pull to go there and see the heavens so close, bright, vast, and deep. But I see something else as well: another mythic vision, this time from science fiction. Camp Hansen could be perched on some distant planet, a small outpost of humanity now flung across the stars. Across the stars, but still at war.
Photographs by Bay Ismoyo/AFP-Getty Images and Hyunsoo Leo Kim/AP/The Virginian-Pilot, thanks to The Big Picture.